Courtesy: Ms. Wright Says
If you don’t know, I will tell you… I prayed that God would make me Black. People who know me might be perplexed by such a revelation. I am “Black” by the “one-drop rule” and I do have African ancestry. Although I self identify myself as a Black woman other people both Black, White, and in between have often asked “What are you?”
Like Andromeda Turre’s PSA ‘What are you?’ in the Huffington Post, I too had to answer that question daily as a child and even into adulthood. Some of my canned responses were “I am a little girl” or “human being.” Their response would be “No. I know that. What race are you?” I would say “I am Black!” They would pause and stare at me then reply “No you’re not!” or “You gotta be mixed with somethin.” As an adult I would be annoyed by such ignorance because most Black folks are mixed with something due to our enslaved ancestry in the United States and later interracially marrying. That mixture is what actually makes us “African Americans.”
The irony is that I was born in Washington, D.C. or “Chocolate City” as it is affectionately known. I spent most of my formative years in the suburbs of Southern California. I remember the first time race became a topic of conversation. I was in the first grade, it was lunchtime and a Mexican girl named April began to categorize all the kids at the table by race. When she got to me she said I was Black. My response was “No. I am actually fried chicken color.” When I got home that afternoon I asked my mother if I was Black? She looked at me, laughed and said “of course, honey!” I told her that if I was Black, why didn’t I look Black? She said “Black people are like flowers, a rose is no more beautiful than a lily, but they all are classified as flowers. We are like a chocolate rainbow of many beautiful hues.” As a 10 year old, I can’t say that I appreciated the analogies. Ultimately, she said “if people have a problem with the way you look then tell them to take it up with God because God made you.” I replied “If I am Black then why don’t people recognize it? Why didn’t God make me Black?“
Later, we moved to Roxbury, a disfranchised community in Boston, Massachusetts, after my single Mom fell on hard times. Although we lived in the “hood” we went to a private Christian school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was teased and taunted by the predominantly African American class for not looking, sounding or being Black enough. I recall while living on both the East and West Coasts, coming home crying everyday because kids of all ethnic backgrounds bullied me for talking and dressing too “White.” It was the mid 80’s and when most kids were wearing faded jeans, Reebok pumps, and Jellies; my Mom dressed me preppy. I was sporting pigtails, pleated skirts, knee high socks and Buster Brown and Oxfords shoes. If that wasn’t bad enough, she encouraged my brother and I to enunciate our words and the use of slang was not allowed in the house. Back then I didn’t feel like I belonged to any ethnic group.
As an adult, I now understand that we are acculturated in the United States to see race by skin tone and not socioeconomically. Many people define “Blackness” not just by the complexion and features of a person but how they speak, dress and even walk. Such a narrow definition of what it means to be Black in America is based on stereotypes and that idea of “Blackness” is a perceived monolithic culture that often eluded me growing up. Ultimately, I grew up to appreciate my articulate proper diction and LOL when people still tease me for being so formal.
However, before I became comfortable in my own skin, I like People® Magazine’s MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN Lupita Nyong’o, prayed for God to change me. But, unlike the Oscar winning actress who wanted to be fair skinned as a child, I prayed for God to make me dark skinned. Growing-up as a kid, to me the most beautiful women I admired had the complexions of my late Mom, Adelaide Smith and women such as Angela Bassett and Grace Jones. When I heard Lupita’s acceptance speech at ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood, I thought of my mother’s own personal agony of being a brown skinned woman with beautiful full lips, a broad nose and wide hips. She was the living incarnation of Rick James Song “Brick House.” However, her self-image was formed in the 1950’s, before Black was beautiful or Alek Wek could be considered a supermodel. Up until her death in 2012, my mother spoke about hurtful incidents throughout her life when her complexion and physical characteristics that made her a beautiful Black woman in my eyes were criticized and diminished. She was told Black women with “big” lips should not wear red lipstick. My brother and I wonder if she chose to date our fathers, who are fair skinned Black men, as a result of such psychological abuse from both Blacks and Whites.
There are constant reminders in the media that my fair skin is beautiful, hair texture is “good,” my freckles are cute and my look is “exotic.” Despite the compliments I do receive, all I ever longed for is to look like a girl who went to my church when I was a teenager. I think her name was Kia and she favored Lupita, but she had a fuller figure and I thought she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. I wanted to look just like her. A chance encounter during a slumber party made us confront the inner desire that I had to look like her and her inner jealousy toward me. We both cried about how we wanted to look like the other. However, her pain and perception of herself was distorted greater than mine. She screamed and wept that I was pretty and the boys wanted to only date girls who looked like me. I did not know how to comfort her. At the time I thought she was right.
Looking back, it wasn’t so much that Kia was right but her perception was based on what her experiences and expectations were. In her mind perhaps she wondered how would she find a boyfriend who thought she was beautiful if she didn’t think she was beautiful. Despite the ugly comments online about Black women being the least desirable on dating sites, along with Asian men, there are plenty of men who do love women with rich skin tones. I think that the self-esteem issues many women struggle with regardless of complexion and body type is based on the way we relate to ourselves more than what men are attracted to. As little girls we often internalize and accept what the media portrays as the standard of beauty because there have been so few alternative and relatable examples.
Finally, at 35, I now love me some me and proudly sport an Afro… although I still wish my natural hair texture was kinkier. Traveling the world, I have met women of all hues who are dying to fit a Western standard of beauty that was given to them. It is a standard that excludes most of us and one we can never achieve or sustain no matter how much weight we lose, surgery we have, and tan or lighten our skin. It forces us to look in the mirror and accept ourselves as beautiful, live life just the way we are or die trying to look “White,” “Black,” or anything other than “who God made us to be” as my Mom would say.